Privateers of the World
Privateering as a practice is often solely attributed to the English, French and Americans. In fact, it was far more widespread. In this post, I examine some of the lesser known privateers of the world.
What is a Privateer?
A privateer was a private individual in a privately owned ship holding a commission (usually from a king or queen) authorising them to raid and/or take enemy ships, seafarers and cargoes as prize during war-time.
Kings and queens used privateers to supplement their treasuries and weaken their enemy’s trade.
To confuse everything, ‘privateer’ was the name for the ship AND the people engaged in the practice. Despite the practice being much older, the term was devised around 1660.
Privateering was NOT ‘legalised piracy’. Privateers were different from pirates because:
#1 They held a commission
#2 they adjudicated all their prizes through a Prize Court in front of a judge.
The intriguing thing about privateering is that just because nobody uses privateers anymore, doesn’t mean it’s illegal. The United States could technically still engage them: they never signed the 1856 Declaration of Paris abolishing the practice. Prize law is also still around. It was last used far more recently than you’d think: the 1950s. So it’s possible they could return, as some people have suggested for Ukraine.
For Ukraine it would be a diplomatic catastrophe and the surest way to escalate the conflict into a World War, but theoretically: it’s possible.
The raiders of Algarve (southern Portugal)
The Portuguese are responsible for recording many of the first navigational feats and geographical finds in history.
In the 12th century, the first King of Portugal, Afonso I, reclaimed Portugal from the Moors of Morocco and returned the land to its Catholic identity. But the Algarve region in the south was protected from the rest of Portugal by mountains. Free from the traditional rivalry between Christians and Muslims, most of the Moors stayed in Algarve and established peaceful trade and commerce with Morocco.
To the North African corsairs though, Portugal was now Christian and therefore a target. And the Algarve relationship with Morocco also upset Portugal’s arch-enemy: Spain. These disputes fed the raiding activities between Portugal, Spain and North Africa throughout the 15th century.
For a Portuguese noble, raiding on behalf of the King offered considerable prestige and personal enrichment. By the 15th century, more and more Portuguese nobles were entering the game, often targeting Portuguese ships illegally. They based themselves all along the Portuguese coast: Lagos, Tavira, Odemira, Lisbon. The conquest of Ceuta on the Moroccan side of the Strait of Gibraltar proved a crowning achievement for Portuguese sea-raiders.
The earliest Portuguese raider on record was Don Fuas Roupinho, a former Knight Templar. He operated a fleet of 40 ships along the Algarve coast and fighting off North African corsairs. The eastern Algarve town of Lagos produced a number of renowned raiders including: Soerio da Costa, Gil Eanes, Vicente Dias, and Estevao Afonso.
Although Portuguese sea power was supplanted by Spain in the 16th century, the supportive Portuguese culture for sea-raiders ensured a steady stream of raiders and future privateers to the world.
The Bartons of Scotland
The Barton family of Scottish privateers exemplifies just how thin the legal line between privateering and piracy could be. They were a privateering family that sailed from the Scottish port of Leith for nearly a century.
The Bartons were master grudge-holders. After Portuguese vessels attacked father John Barton’s ships off Lisbon in 1476, John successfully obtained letters of reprisals from the Scottish King James IV. The family then spent several years recouping their ‘losses’, occasionally causing diplomatic difficulties for the king.
To the Dutch and Portuguese, the Bartons were pirates. Yet no matter what they did, the Bartons’ expertise at privateering ensured they retained the King’s favour. When Dutch raiders brutally attacked Scottish ships, the King sent John’s son Andrew Barton after them. He apparently sent the King a number of barrels full of the heads of Dutch raiders to show just how thorough he could be. The King even intervened to secure the release of Robert after his arrest for piracy by the Portuguese.
Andrew Barton’s end came during a cruise in search of Portuguese ships.
Despite the long-standing animosity between Scotland and England, Barton knew better than to intentionally target English ships. The problem was that an official alliance between England and Portugal had begun in 1386 and it stemmed from England’s eternal battles with France – who aligned with Spain – who were the arch-enemy of the Portuguese. The Scots will tell you the English were jealous of Barton’s success and that’s why the English King Henry VIII sent out a party to take Andrew Barton dead or alive. But it may well have been to preserve an extremely important strategic alliance for England.
Andrew Barton was mortally wounded early in the fight but he kept encouraging his men as long as he was able. He is today still immortalised in verse and song and somehow acquired the moniker ‘Sir’, despite no record of a knighthood. His brother, Robert Barton did receive a knighthood and was made a feudal baron in appreciation of his services to the Scottish King.
Benjamin Raule and the Brandenburg Privateers
Although dissolved over a century ago at the end of World War I, the northern European region of Brandenburg-Prussia was historically significant for its role in the 1648 Peace of Westphalia. This peace treaty set the groundwork for equality and boundaries between nation-states, regardless of their actual economic and political power and we see its influence (and violation) today.
The Treaty was a good thing for Brandenburg because during the Northern War (1674-79), they had no seapower whatsoever. Facing off against French-aligned Sweden, the Great Elector of Brandenburg, Friedrich Wilhelm decided to strengthen Brandenburg’s position by issuing privateering commissions to protect Brandenburg ships against the Swedes.
To assist in this effort, he accepted an offer from a Dutch shipowner called Benjamin Raule. Raule was a former Dunkirker (see my post about them last week) and his family made a tidy living as privateers. Armed with a commission from Wilhelm, Raule equipped privateers in Amsterdam and quickly captured 21 Swedish ships. Then when he took them in for prize adjudication, he discovered that Wilhelm’s commission was not recognised by the Dutch or the English. Since he did not wish to be accused of piracy, he did the right thing and released them back to Sweden.
The next year, Wilhelm asked Raule to set up a Brandenburg Navy. Despite its name, it was really a privateering operation directed against Spain with the intention of collecting arrears of Spanish debts from the Northern War. These were thought to be valued at 1.8 million thalers. Raule became quite successful in this enterprise and almost single-handedly replenished Brandenburg’s treasury. Two Spanish galleons off the Mexican-American coast proved particularly lucrative.
Faced with a strong Spanish opposition and his treasury replenished, Friedrich Wilhelm disbanded the Brandenburg Navy in 1681.
The Dunkirkers of the Flemish Coast
During peacetime, the residents of Dunkirk happily fished, farmed and traded with their neighbours like everyone else. But whenever war broke out – which was quite often back then – they would transform into fearsome and devastatingly effective sea-raiders. They caused the English to name the Flemish coast the ‘Barbary of the North’.
The Dunkirkers had terrifying reputations. They had operated as sea-raiders for hire as early as 1488 and had supplemented Spanish warships since 1583.They concentrated on raiding fishing fleets and merchantmen returning from the East Indies and Brazil. Many a neutral ship dreaded an encounter with a Dunkirker.
Attempts to stop them proved useless. The Dutch, who spent decades fighting for their independence from Spain, organised convoys and tried to blockade Flemish ports in futile efforts to protect themselves.
Then in 1646, the port of Dunkirk fell to France during the Franco-Spanish War (1635-59). Incensed, the Dunkirkers started targeting French ships. Dunkirk returned to Spain in 1652 but was lost to England in 1658, causing the Dunkirkers to take English prizes instead. Frustrated with them, the English sold Dunkirk to the French King Louis XIV in 1662.
Despite now being officially French, the Dunkirkers continued to target French shipping. Fortunately for them, King Louis had limited interest in Dunkirk or military affairs at sea. Even if he wanted to, it’s unlikely he could have controlled them.
Over time, the Dunkirkers started to gradually cooperate more with France. During peacetime, Dunkirk provided prominent sea-raiders, most notably Jean Bart (pictured here), to the French Navy. With the help of Dunkirker expertise, France shifted its primary naval strategy to privateering for the Nine Years War (1688-97). But the Dunkirkers’ still took French ships during this war.
After around 25 years of French ownership, the Dunkirkers finally severed their Spanish connection and became true privateers for France.
Ingela Gathenhielm of Onsala, Sweden
Privateering was not just the domain of the French and English. Nor was it just for men.
During the 17th century, Sweden was the great power of northern Europe. It defeated Denmark in two wars and imperially controlled Finland, northern Germany and the present-day Baltic republics. By the 18th century though, Sweden’s power had begun to decline. It had a largely agrarian economy and lacked the resources to maintain such a large empire. Sensing its decline, Russia formed an alliance with Denmark and Poland to seize control of Swedish territory and the Great Northern War began in 1700.
The western coast town of Onsala was a prominent Swedish privateering centre. It was here its most famous privateering entrepreneur, Ingela Olofsdotter was born into a well-to-do family in 1692. At 19, she married Lars Gathe, a son from a successful privateering family.
The Great Northern War offered the couple a lucrative business opportunity in privateering. They moved to Gothenburg and their expertise became so valuable to the Swedish King Charles XII that he enobled them as Gathenhielm, offering them several estates.
After Lars died in 1718, Ingela successfully continued their privateering business. A shrewd and successful businesswoman, Ingela recognised the need for providing supportive services to privateering by establishing a bakery, brewery, distillery, smithy and sail-making operation. She expanded into ropes and became the premier supplier of them. All while somehow managing to raise nine children (only four survived to adulthood).
Like many privateers, Lars and Ingela faced accusations of piracy although I can’t find anything about who was doing the accusing.
After the War, disputes arose between the Swedish Crown and civilians regarding compensation for privateering expenses. At the behest of her second husband, Ingela campaigned heavily for compensation on her late husband’s behalf.
Ingela died in 1729 and was buried at Onsala church in the Gathenhielm family tomb.
The Privateers of Denmark during the Napoleonic Wars
The small nation of Denmark always punched above its weight when it came to maritime trade. It had a history of undertaking privateering, especially against more powerful neighbour Sweden. However, by the 18th century Denmark established itself as neutral. Being uninvolved in the endless wars between England and France ensured the Danes built a fleet of 2,500 merchant vessels that ranked second only to England. Their neutrality helped Denmark build a prosperous economy based on commerce, especially carrying tropical produce from the East Indies.
Then in 1793, England and France dragged Denmark into their war. Attempting to starve each other by restricting food imports, the two naval powerhouses instructed their privateers to target the neutral ships of Scandinavia.
The resourceful Danes managed to minimise losses with a convoy system but by 1800, the flagrant aggressions of the British privateers against them caused them to form an armed alliance with the other northern powers, including Norway and Russia, to protect their neutrality and their shipping.
As the Napoleonic Wars began, the Danes soon became caught between the British and French. By September 1807, the British moved against Denmark and spent three days bombing Copenhagen into submission, killing 2,000 people and burning most of the city down. Having lost their shipping fleet to the British, the Danes abandoned their neutrality and aligned themselves with France.
They then engaged in extensive privateering against British shipping in the Baltic Sea. Danish pride and sovereignty was now at stake. Unfortunately, the years of absence from the privateering game did not bode well for them. The resulting Gunboat War (1807-14) never managed to stop British convoys entering the Baltic Sea and cost the small nation more than half of its merchant fleet.
The Danish Privateers’ depredations against American vessels were more successful. Napoleon suspected, with good reason, that Americans and other neutrals were smuggling on behalf of Britain. He sent the Danes after their ships and they succeeded in severely curtailing American shipping in the Baltic.
Danish privateering came to an end with the Treaty of Kiel on 14 January 1814. The treaty saw Norway cede to Sweden and proved unfavourable to Denmark politically. However, the end of the War heralded a new wave of intellectual vigour that saw Denmark conquer the world with its literature, art and philosophy.
Russia and the Lambros Katsonis Affair
In 1794, after Queen Catherine II’s Russian-Ottoman war (1787-91) had ended, the Russian Empire convened the Commission for Archipelago Affairs. Like its neighbours, Russia had a long tradition of using foreign privateers. However it later turned out that one-third of the disputes the new commission dealt with arose from the actions and moral character of just one of them: Lambros Katsonis.
As his name suggests, Lambros Katsonis was born into a wealthy Greek family. In those days, the Greeks were born with an intense hatred of the Turks so the Russians recruited them to supplement its armed forces in its perpetual conflicts with the Ottoman Empire.
Katsonis distinguished himself among the volunteers and by 1788 was offering his flotilla of ships and privateering services to Russia. He spent the war terrorising Mediterranean commerce and considered himself solely responsible for preventing the Ottoman Empire from diverting its forces away from the region. He thought of himself not as a privateer but the head of an imperial Russian squadron. He even flew a naval ensign. He also veered dangerously close to piracy when he ignored the terms of the armistice that brought hostilities to an end.
As you can imagine, he was a notorious scoundrel, even among Russia’s allies.
Katsonis was richly rewarded by Catherine for his efforts against the Ottomans. However, complaints from merchants over his unpaid debts and his flotilla’s crews revealed Katsonis refused to share his prize proceeds with them, as is accepted practice. Believing him to be a Russian officer as he said, they began claiming compensation for lost wages, salaries and debts from the Russian government.
The Commission refused to pay them. As a privateer, Katsonis was a private individual, not an employee of the Russian Government. Katsonis argued vehemently against the findings. Eventually the Russian Government paid out a sizable 600,000 rubles to Katsonis for him to settle his debts. It’s not clear whether he did this or kept it for himself but he certainly retired a wealthy man, until he was assassinated in 1805.
The Sea-raiders of Southeast Asia
While sea-raiders outside Europe were not called privateers, their actions commonly mimicked those of the European privateering nations.
In Southeast Asia, numerous leaders of nation-states employed sea-raiding as a way to build and maintain their wealth and control of the land and the seas. Their raiders were often fishers, smugglers, or traders during peacetime who then switched to raiding ships on behalf of others during war-time.
On the Malay peninsula, the kingdom of Johor hired local sea-raiders to target other sea-raiders and fishers from competing, nearby states. The Orang Laut raiders in the southern Malacca Strait used their incredibly detailed knowledge of the waters, swamps, and shoals to patrol the seas on behalf of the local strongman, ‘guide’ ships into port (for a price), and keep allies in line for personal profit and in the service of a patron.
Up in the Sulu Sea in the Philippines, the Iranun and Balangini sea-raiders specialised in long distance maritime raiding and capturing slaves on behalf of local rulers. When the Europeans arrived with their insatiable thirst for tea, these vicious raiders – known as the Vikings of Asia - worked on behalf of the Sulu Sultan to secure this new arm of the slave market for him.
The ‘kaizoku’ (Japanese for sea brigand) established strategic trade networks among the Japanese islands – in direct opposition to China – and sold their services to local rulers seeking to expand their empire. Some kaizoku became so successful they became feudal lords in their own right.
Down around Papua New Guinea, the Tidore Sultan engaged Muslim sea-raiders from the Raja Ampat islands to kidnap non-Muslim slaves and sell them to the Dutch spice plantations. To protect themselves, some coastal villages entered into agreements with the raiders to help them rob their inland neighbours in exchange for not being part of the brutal Dutch monopoly over the 17th century spice trade.
Cuba’s Verigadores de su Patria (Avengers of our Country)
For centuries, the Spanish and their lucrative treasure ships from the New World were the common target of the Big Guns of European privateering: the English (later British) and the French. Thanks to persistent depredations against their maritime commerce, combined with endless wars and economic mismanagement by the Spanish Crown, Spain’s demise as a global power began to take hold in the early 18th century. By the early 19th century, the Spanish Main was devastated by the invasion of Napoleon, the Crown was in crisis and Spain’s American colonies were agitating for independence.
Spain’s last line of defence against the independence movement came from one of only two loyal colonies: Cuba. (The other was Puerto Rico). The Spanish privateers were greatly outnumbered by those hired by the rebel governments but those who fought for Spain were fiercely patriotic.
The Verigadores deeply resented the British and Americans’ tacit support for the colonial insurgencies. Feeding their anger was the two nations’ increasingly active interference in a primary source of their income: the region’s slave trade. They used their grievances as justification for defying La Ordenanza General de Corso: the rules of Spanish privateering established in 1801. When they began to attack neutral ships, they crossed the line into piracy.
A Verigadore attack was excessively violent. Entire crews disappeared, presumed murdered. The British and Americans accused the Spanish authorities of complacency towards the verigadores. Cuban leaders were proud Spaniards determined to maintain the prestige of the Spanish Crown.
They were well aware of what foreign accusations of piracy were doing to the crucial international trade they needed for Spain to economically recover from its devastation. But the reality was they lacked sufficient economic, military and political force to stop their countrymen from attacking foreign ships. When they could, they did intercept wayward sea-raiders on their own volition.
By the early 1820s, the British had launched an efficient Cuban piracy suppression initiative, capturing and prosecuting Verigadores. Cuba remained a loyal Spanish colony until 1868 when it began its fight for independence (pictured here).
The Cartagena Privateers (1811-15)
One of the players on the other side of the Spanish American independence wars were the privateers from the important port town of Cartagena (located today in Colombia). Not a lot of records survive about the important efforts of local privateers in the Spanish American independence wars so Morales’ book No Limits to the Sway provides important context to this extremely influential era of South American history.
By 1811, Spain’s fight with Napoleon had weakened its hold over its American colonies so much that Cartagena now rejected Spanish authority and declared itself independent. To defend its new sovereignty, Cartagena’s new leaders welcomed multi-national merchants, adventurers and revolutionaries from across the Caribbean to Europe and the newly independent United States. Under the flag of the newly formed State of Cartagena de Indias, these individuals attacked Spanish ships, seized Spanish property at will, and on occasion, fought the Spanish Navy.
However, according to Morales, while we know a lot about American participation in South American privateering through the privateers of Baltimore and the story of Jean and Pierre Lafitte, in fact the majority of Cartagena’s privateers were of African ancestry and descended from slaves, often from the French Caribbean, Haiti and Gaudeloupe.
For these men, privateering offered them relative freedom and flexibility to their lives on land. But they also faced kidnapping, enslavement and brutality. Cartagena still relied heavily on slavery to establish itself economically and wealthy landowners – crucial to the establishment of the state’s independent economy – bristled at their participation. Despite the successes of these privateers, the freedom privateering gave them raised questions about their loyalties and desire for political and social privilege that Cartagena’s leaders felt threatened their hold on the fledgling new country.
Independent Cartagena only survived until 1815. But the Cartagena revolutionaries and its use of privateering inspired the residents of the lands that became Mexico, Argentina and Uruguay to declare their own independence from Spain. As a result, the entire South American geo-political landscape changed to become more aligned with what it is today.
Privateers of the Cisplatine War (1825-9)
The little-known Cisplatine War between the United Provinces, represented by Buenos Ayres (spelt ‘Aires’ today) and Brazil over ownership of the fertile Cisplatina region set off an extraordinary level of privateering in the Atlantic Ocean. In the aftermath of the War for Independence (Buenos Ayres) and Portugal’s fight with Napoleon during the Revolutionary Wars, both countries were newly independent. But this new independence did not mean their governments were stable, or even all that functional. The financial fall-out from war, internal squabbling and power struggles between very inexperienced politicians, and wealthy land-owners frustrated by an increasing international push to abolish slavery all combined to create a very volatile situation on land for many years.
When the Cisplatine War began, neither country had much naval power at all, or any home-grown privateering. So to fight the other, both countries issued privateering commissions to anyone who would accept them. British law forbade citizens from accepting a foreign commission but this was not the case for Americans. Spanish and Portuguese privateers also took up the unexpected privateering opportunity. It was so easy to acquire a commission that many of them spent all their time cruising the Caribbean and never even set foot in Buenos Ayres or Rio de Janeiro.
The French, British and Americans officially maintained a neutral position in the Cisplatine War but it was not long before it affected their maritime trade. British sea captains complained of being blockaded into Buenos Ayres by a few Brazilian privateers who picked off any ship that dared to emerge from the harbour. Rio de Janeiro too was subject to a Buenos Ayres-privateer blockade. Former pirates from Cuba also joined the effort.
Eventually the privateering grew so damaging to the reputation of the new governments that they sought British and American assistance in calling in their commissions. The Cisplatine War ended with a peace treaty that became the formation of the new country, Uruguay.
The End of Privateering
The end of privateering was an important building block to how many of our countries are run today.
After the Revolutionary Wars ended, the European powers turned away from using privateers. Exhausted and depleted by it all, the British and French made a supreme effort to focus on trade relationships rather than war. They managed to avoid embroiling themselves in any conflicts for 40 years; until defeating the Russian Empire in the Crimean War (1853-6).
During this war, neither side engaged privateers. There was no longer a place for private individuals in state-sponsored warfare. That’s because these countries had spent the past 40 years of peace spending tax dollars on infrastructure, industry, education, health care, police and armed forces. In return, it expected its citizens to adhere to its authority and control.
The abolition of privateering came about in 1856 through a treaty called the Declaration of Paris. It set up new international rules of maritime law. By signing it, a state acknowledged it would now take responsibility for the violent actions of its citizens at sea. Of course, it did not resolve the extreme logistical and financial challenges of actually doing this.
Most notably, the United States refused to sign the Declaration. The legacy of centuries of colonialism meant the US rankled at the idea of controlling its citizens in this way. This meant the last conflict involving privateers was the American Civil War. After that, the Americans accepted the norms of maritime law set out by the Europeans even if they never did formally agree to them.
And that’s how privateering came to an end.
The Declaration sets the basis of maritime law today. We last saw how difficult controlling citizens’ violence at sea still was during the Somali piracy epidemic of 2008-12. Interestingly, this heralded the return of private violence to the sea through the use of privately contracted armed guards.
So it may all still come back again.